A few (heretical) thoughts on Remembrance Day

remembrance-poppy.jpg

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

— Lt.-Col. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Today is the 90th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, which at that time was known simply as “The Great War”.

Nobody back then thought that it was only a FIRST world war, let alone that there would be another (or others, as is now an idea rapidly gaining traction among progressives.) It was known, popularly, as “the war to end all wars”–partly because it was so horrendously destructive, with loss of life on an unprecedented scale, but more, I think, because of the sheer psychological effect of all that destruction on the people who witnessed it at close hand. It caused an enormous distaste for war itself, as well as for the lies that lead to war, and the empires that demand wars in order to perpetuate and sustain themselves. At the Armistice, 90 years ago today, millions of exhausted people sincerely believed that war itself was exhausted–that there could simply never be another, because people would take one look back at the one that had just ended, shudder and decide it wasn’t worth it.

How soon they forgot. Just 20 years later, another war was about to begin. Or had begun already, if you accept Hitler’s theft of power (and I, for one, do) as the true opening salvo of World War II. The second world war turned out to be an even greater war than the so-called Great War, with more loss of life and more psychological destruction still. By the time Little Boy and Fat Man fried Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, it was clear that the forgetful leaders and peoples of the developed countries had learned absolutely nothing from history, let alone its most horrible prior chapter–which, for many of them, was a vivid, living memory.

Nor, it turns out, would they learn from the second one, either. Fat Man and Little Boy were not the end of their line, but merely the progenitors of a vast and ruinous nuclear-industrial complex. All manner of militarism was so popular and profitable with the US congresses of the 1950s that retiring president Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell speech, very nearly made reference to a military-industrial-congressional complex. Was it only the unwieldiness of the terminology that dissuaded him, or was some other, darker force at work?

What I know is this: Eisenhower, as the general who accepted Germany’s surrender at the end of the European phase of WWII, had acquired a personal distaste for war, having seen enough of the shooting kind at close hand to last several lifetimes. A cold war–which I consider to be World War III, since it in fact encapsulated many highly destructive shooting wars, particularly in Latin America–was also repugnant to him, but it seems that talk of the communist menace won out. He mentions that, in the same “military-industrial complex” speech, as a menace “greatly to be feared”. Never mind that Soviet Russia had never fired a shot at the so-called Free World, and was in fact its ally during the war against Hitler. Suddenly, at WWII’s end, Russia was The Enemy, and Germany was the toy over which the superpowers squabbled, just as Yugoslavia had been some 20 years previously. It made no sense, and still makes no sense, that former allies could so quickly turn on each other for something as abstract as mere ideology–and in fact, ideology really isn’t the reason for the sudden turnaround at all.

I’ve come to an heretical conclusion about the world wars, one that will undoubtedly sit ill with traditionalists and “respectable” historians, who like to tout such pious, abstract notions as freedom, honor and gallantry as the driving forces behind them. But still, mine is the only explanation that makes sense, since a great many free-thinking, honorable and gallant people have never had the least stomach for war, and it does no justice to sweep them under the rug simply because they don’t fit a certain “accepted truth”. My heretical conclusion is this: The world wars were, and are, all and always, about imperialism, and specifically, imperialism of an economic nature.

Sit back for a moment and let that sink in, dear reader.

Are you shocked? Horrified? Sputtering with rage? Ready to string up the red-headed witch for an unholy blasphemer?

Wait.

And think, for a moment, about why nations go to war against each other in general. What is it that motivates them? A mere hatred by one leader of another leader’s guts? Ridiculous. If that were the case, why did Winston Churchill express, early on, admiration of Hitler and Mussolini? And if it was really about democracy versus tyranny, why was he himself a monarchist–and one with bloodthirsty tyrannical tendencies of his own? The fact is, he didn’t hate the tyrants’ guts or even their grotesque ideologies; he actually admired those. No, the real reason he hated them is that they threatened his beloved British Empire economically and territorially.

And since the territories of empire are acquired for economic reasons above all, it stands to reason that the economic imperative was, however unspoken, paramount. The Boer War, I’m sure, would never have been fought if vast deposits of gold and diamonds had not been found in South Africa. If it were for all the reasons conventionally given, it would have been fought much sooner. Ideology alone was not enough to do it. Neither was geographical unity of the British empire in Africa. And certainly the flaming racism of the Boers was not the real problem; the British were scarcely any better. Winston Churchill himself was a flaming racist; he just wasn’t such a country bumpkin about it as the Boers. Class snobbery also counts here, kiddies. Had the agrarian Boers had a Cecil Rhodes to call their own, Britain would surely have lost and its colonists would have ended up toiling like slaves in the mines rather than owning and profiting from them.

Let’s face it: Wars fought over political ideology alone tend to be lost by the idealistic ideologues who launch them; wars fought for economic reasons, however, tend to be won by the most avaricious, regardless of who fired the first shot, or of what pretended ideological grounds they claim. This is one field where economic incentive really does shape the outcome. Greek nationalism hit a wall in the 1920s, and Anatolia remains Turkish to this day; perhaps, if cold hard greed rather than nostalgic idealism had been a driving force behind it, and if Greece had been the richer at the outset, the outcome of the Megali Idea would have been very different.

Ideology was, of course, a very convenient pretext for getting the public, especially in the US, to accept the unacceptable: an arms race on which billions of dollars were squandered that would otherwise have gone towards healthcare, education, and social welfare of every kind. Shit, who needs to invest in the peons when their lives are cheaper than the ammo for those highly profitable cannons?
Better to scare them with the menace of communism; that way, they’d buy anything. Including stock in the war machine.

Of course, the communist “menace” is still being fraudulently touted today, but it’s been largely replaced by the twin spectres of drugs and terrorism, since people have grown largely skeptical that communism was ever such a threat to begin with. Where did they get that idea? Gee, you tell me. How did the Berlin Wall crumble, again?

And what kind of capitalism grew up in its rubble? Something that looks an awful lot like the pre-crash conditions of the late 1920s, you say? Something that looks a lot like history repeating itself, but in a messier, less distinctly staged form, with all the lessons neither learned nor absorbed?

BINGO.

So here we are, drearily slogging through yet another long, ugly, economically motivated world war. For those keeping count, this is World War IV.

Doesn’t look like it, you say?

True, the million-scale deaths necessary for a truly spectacular global conflict are not talked about (although, in Iraq, surely more than a million people have died by now.) And no, there’s been no spectacular footage of nuclear explosions, either (although radioactive weapons have been deployed, to the tune of 4.5 billion devastating years of half-life.) Talk of ideology, too, is strangely muted, although there are still incoherent mumblings from the US right about some dodo-bird called “Islamofascism”, which never existed but once–namely, when Moroccan Moors helped Franco win the Spanish Civil War. (And we all know what side the US right would have taken in THAT one, eh kiddies?)

But economic reasons for the current global cut-and-thrust? Oh, they’re there, all right. The biggest one is spelled O-I-L; it’s the reason why a funny, lovable democratic socialist leader in Venezuela is being painted as a tyrant (the better to depose him undemocratically). It’s also why Ecuador, with its handsome US-educated wonk-in-chief, is being slapped upside the head with an absurd, unwarranted debt rating. It’s why the cute, mild-mannered guy in charge of oil-and-gas-rich Bolivia is being satanized as an Indianist racist, despite a total lack of evidence that he is one. It’s why right-wing nuts in South Florida are making noises again about the need to annex Cuba, pronto (though, if asked, they will swear up and down that it’s that old boogerbear, communism, and nada más). It’s also why the war in Iraq is still a long way from over, even though everyone actually fighting it is sick to death and wishing with all their might that it would end this instant. There is talk of that theatre of battle going on for at least another four fucking years!

If this protracted bloodletting isn’t a world war, then tell me–what is it?

And tell me, too–if the saying behind our beloved Remembrance Day poppies, dating back to the end of the Great War, is “Lest We Forget”–why the hell have we forgotten, again and again and again?

One would think, after 90 years (and more), that someone besides me would have seen the repetitions of the overall pattern and understood what it all meant.

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3 Responses to A few (heretical) thoughts on Remembrance Day

  1. Deb Prothero says:

    Sabina;
    Saying it like it is.
    I wonder if Obama would listen to this argument and speed up the pull out from Iraq. I too have heard it said more than once this week that a war is the only way out of the depression that surely faces us. We just haven’t yet been told its a depression but the numbers may soon be as bad as 1929.

  2. CFItz says:

    So glad to read your summary. It’s appreciated.
    But I have one question: do you think that Remembrance Day serves a purpose? If you were the Supreme Ruler of Holiday Designations would you keep it, toss it, revamp it…?

  3. Of course it serves a purpose; the question is, is the purpose to enlighten, to truly remember, or merely to placate a prevailing sensibility and silence awkward questions? Right now, my suspicion is it’s the latter. Unfortunately.
    When I was a kid, we still saw the words “Never Again” associated with it. Now those words are strangely absent, which raises the question: When did “Never Again” turn into “Yeah, Let’s Do It Again, But This Time, Let’s Just Mouth A Few Appropriate Sounding Platitudes And Call It A Day”?
    I’d keep the day–remembrance is definitely needed in this age of amnesia–but here’s what I’d change:
    I’d get vets in to the schools to talk about the many ways economic imperialism is hazardous to a soldier’s health, and why war is unnecessary to a free society. (For instance, we forget that Iceland is free, but it’s never had a war in something like a thousand years of history.)
    It’s easy to cop out with cute rhetoric about “supreme sacrifices” and “dying for your freedom”, but when I see how UNfree we are in ways that are all directly tied to economic forces after all these wars, I don’t think it’s appropriate to glorify war, let alone connect the concept of megadeath to that of freedom. Some of our greatest freedoms as Canadians were won in times of peace–our social security net, for example. Our public education system, our universal healthcare, our roads, rails and highways. They were won by the stroke of a pen on a bill in the House of Commons, not the blast of a cannon in Passchendaele. I also find it significant that many of our present charter rights and freedoms have nothing to do with deaths in the Flanders Fields. But then again, it’s kind of hard to talk of glorious sacrifice there when it was wonkish constitutional lawyers, not handsome guys in uniform, who guaranteed us those rights. Plus, it doesn’t fit in with the imperial agenda.
    Not to take anything away from the militaries–they, too, are needed–but considering that we’ve never been invaded by anyone other than the Americans, almost 200 years ago, I have to wonder how sending our army to fight Britain’s wars of empire, and lately, those of the Yanks, is doing anything for our freedom. It seems that when we let that happen, when we let an antiquated cold-war NATO charter dictate our actions instead of letting the people dictate them to Parliament, we civilians find ourselves in the untenable position of letting another country’s agenda hijack and override our democracy. And with it, there goes our freedom, out the window. I can’t imagine a stealthier kind of invasion or subversion, can you?

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